The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXIII

In the previous episode of this series we looked into the academic literature that spread knowledge of the heliocentric system during the seventeenth century. However, there was another genre of literature during the century that was also partially dedicated to introducing and explaining the heliocentric system, fiction and popular literature and that is what we are going to look at now.

It should come as no surprise that the earliest author to produce a fictional account of the heliocentric system was Johannes Kepler with his posthumously published proto-science-fiction novel, Somnium (The Dream) (1634).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kepler first wrote the core of this book as a student dissertation, written for his teacher Michael Mästlin, explaining how the movement of the Earth, in a heliocentric system, would appear to somebody observing it from the Moon. Around 1605 he added a frame story to his student dissertation the dream of the title. Kepler relates that in 1608 he was reading a book on Bohemian legends when he fell asleep and began to dream. In his dream he takes down another book from the shelf and reads the story of Duracotus, an Icelander, and his mother Fiolxhilda, who is obviously a witch, although Kepler never explicitly states that. The boy open a herb charm that his mother has made to sell to sailors and removes the herbs making the charm useless. Outraged, his mother sells him instead to the ship’s captain, who takes him to Scandinavia, where he ends up on Hven with Tycho Brahe under whom he studies astronomy for five years. Returning to Iceland he reconciles himself with his mother, who reveals to him that she has magical knowledge of astronomy. Fiolxhilda summons a daemon, who tells Duracotus how they could travel to the moon and then holds a long discourse on the moon and its inhabitants, part science, part science fiction. To go into more detail would turn this post into book, however, because of the obvious autobiographical element Kepler thought that somebody had gained access to the manuscript and this was why his mother was charged with witchcraft; he was almost certainly mistaken in this belief.

Kepler did not publish his story but put it aside. Between 1620 and 1630 Kepler added 223 extensive endnotes, which elucidate the story, explaining his sources, his motivations and the content of the story itself. Even with these explanatory additions Kepler did not publish the book, leaving it unpublished at his death in 1630. Because his death had left his wife, Susanna, and his family in financial difficulties, his son in law, Jacob Bartsch (c. 1600–1633) edited the manuscript for publication with hope of generating an income for his mother-in-law. However, he too died before he could publish the book, which was then finally brought to press by Kepler’s son Ludwig (b. 1607).

Kepler’s Somnium was the first of a series of fictional books describing journeys to the moon in the seventeenth century nearly all of which promoted a heliocentric astronomy and it is to these that we now turn.

Our first author is the Anglican clergyman and natural philosopher, John Wilkins (1614–1672).

Greenhill, John, c.1649-1676; John Wilkins (1614-1672), Warden (1648-1659)

John Wilkins portrait attributed to John Greenhill Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he produced no real new scientific discoveries or theories Wilkins was a highly influential figure in the scientific revolution in England. He published a series of popular and speculative science books and was a founding member of and a driving force behind the Royal Society. One of Wilkins’ popular science books, Mathematical Magick (1648) is said to have had a strong influence on a young Isaac Newton but it is two of his other books that interest us here, The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638) and A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1640), the second being a revised and expanded version of the first.


Cover and frontispiece. Note the heliocentric system diagram

Both books present a heliocentric astronomical system and, based on Galileo’s telescopic discoveries of the earth like nature of the moon, hypothesise an inhabited moon, as had Kepler’s Somnium, which however predated Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. Wilkins two books were a popular source for disseminating the heliocentric hypothesis in England.


Five months after the publication of The Discovery of a World in the Moone another journey to the moon fantasy by an Anglican clergyman was published, Francis Goodwin’s The Man in the Moone or A Discourse of a Voyage thither (1638), under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales.

unknown artist; Francis Godwyn (1562-1633), Bishop of Llandaff (1601), Bishop of Hereford (1617)

Francis Godwin artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Godwin (1562–1633) had died five years previously and although his book was published after Wilkins’ tome, it is thought to have been written in the 1620s and it is known to have influenced Wilkins’ book.


Source: Houghton Library via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘author’, Gonsales, a Spaniard on the run after killing a man in a duel, invents a flying machine powered by gansa, a species of wild swans, which after a series of adventures flies him to the moon, a twelve day journey. Here he discovers a utopian Christian society. After six months he returns to earth landing in China, where he has some more adventures. For our purposes what is important here is that like Wilkins, Godwin is a Copernican and although he only mentions Copernicus by name the influence of Kepler, Gilbert and Galileo is clearly discernable in his science fantasy.


Frontispiece and title page of the second edition (1657), now with the pseudonym replaced by “F.G. B. of H.” (“Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford”) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The books of Wilkins and Godwin were both best sellers and were translated into various other European languages including French, where they influenced another book in the genre, Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune (The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon 1657), and his Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662), both published posthumously.


Cyrano de Bergerac artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

L’Autre monde is a satire on Godwin’s book and Cyrano’s hero, who is also called Cyrano, makes various failed attempts to reach the moon, including trying to rise up to the moon levitated by bottles of evaporating dew before he finally gets there.


Cyrano uses bottles of dew to float upwards. Illustration from the second volume of an edition of Cyrano de Bergerac’s complete works printed in Amsterdam in 1708 Source: Wikimedia Commons

When he does arrive on the moon one of the people he meets is Gonsales, with whom he has a religious debate. It might seem that Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–1655) as a literary author was just riffing off the success of Wilkins’ and Godwin’s works but he was a pupil of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) and so was well informed about the ongoing cosmology and astronomy debate.


Godwin’s The Man in the Moone and the English translation of Cyrano’s L’Autre monde inspired two later stage productions on the theme Aphra Behn’s (1640–1689) farce The Emperor of the Moon 1687, her second most successful play, and Elkanah Settle’s (1648–1724) opera The World in the Moon (1697).


Aphra Behn by the Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Peter Lely, Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

All of the texts that we have looked at so far contain a common theme that emerged strongly during the seventeenth century, the possibility of life on other worlds, in this case the moon. Our final work, in this case not a fictional but a factual one, continues this theme, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s popular presentation of the heliocentric hypothesis, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, 1686). Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) was an author and Cartesian philosopher, commentator rather than initiator, who was a member of both the Académie française and the Académie des sciences of which he was secretary for forty-two years beginning in 1697; in this function he wrote Histoire du renouvellement de l’Académie des Sciences (Paris, 3 vols., 1708, 1717, 1722).


Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

His Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes was an early example of a popular science book written in French not Latin.


In the preface, Fontenelle addresses female readers and suggests that the offered explanation should be easily understood even by those without scientific knowledge. The book is presented as a dialogue between a philosopher and a marquise and elucidates the heliocentric system with a discussion of the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. The book is interesting in that Fontenelle explains that there is now only one system to consider because the Tychonic system was now considered to be too complex in comparison with the heliocentric system. This is one of the few real applications of Ockham’s razor in the history of science and comes long before there was any empirical proof for the heliocentric system. There was an English translation by John Glanville (c. 1664–1735) in 1687 and another by Aphra Behn A Discovery of New Worlds in 1688.


A Gentleman of the Inner Temple is John Glanville

This all too brief survey of the fictional and popular literature published in the seventeenth century demonstrates that the discussion on the cosmological/astronomical system had escaped the narrow confines of academia and entered the public forum.











Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science

2 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXXIII

  1. Adam Apt

    A curious fact about Wilkins, having nothing to do with the man himself. It is believed that the two-volume edition of his collected works published in 1802 is the first English book printed on wood-pulp paper.

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